The web pages actually at the top of Google have only
one thing clearly in common: good writing. Don't get
so caught up in the usual SEO sacred cows and bugbears,
your site's content.
I was recently struck by the fact that the top-ranking
web pages on Google are consistently much better written
than the vast majority of what one reads on the web.
Of course, that shouldn't be a surprise, considering
how often officials at Google proclaim the importance
of good content. Yet traditional SEO wisdom has little
to say about good writing.
Does Google, the world's wealthiest media company,
really ignore traditional standards of quality in the
publishing world? Does Google, like so many website
owners, really get so caught up in the process of the
algorithm that it misses the whole point?
Most Common On-the-Page Website Content Success Features
Whatever the technical mechanism, Google is doing a
pretty good job of identifying websites with good content
and rewarding them with high rankings.
I looked at Google's top five pages for the five most
searched-on keywords, as identified by WordTracker on
June 27, 2005. Typically, the top five pages receive
an overwhelming majority of the traffic delivered by
The web pages that contained written content (a small
but significant portion were image galleries) all shared
the following features:
* Updating: frequent updating of content, at least
once every few weeks, and more often, once a week or
* Spelling and grammar: few or no errors. No page had
more than three misspelled words or four grammatical
errors. Note: spelling and grammar errors were identified
by using Microsoft Word's check feature, and then ruling
out words marked as misspellings that are either proper
names or new words that are simply not in the dictionary.
Does Google use SpellCheck? I can already hear the scoffing
on the other side of this computer screen. Before you
dismiss the idea completely, keep in mind that no one
really does know what the 100 factors in Google's algorithm
are. But whether the mechanism is SpellCheck or a better
shot at link popularity thanks to great credibility,
or something else entirely, the results remain the same.
* Paragraphs: primarily brief (1-4 sentences). Few
or no long blocks of text.
* Lists: both bulleted and numbered, form a large part
of the text.
* Sentence length: mostly brief (10 words or fewer).
Medium-length and long sentences are sprinkled throughout
the text rather than clumped together.
* Contextual relevance: text contains numerous terms
related to the keyword, as well as stem variations of
SEO Bugbears and Sacred Cows
A hard look at the results shows that, practically
speaking, a number of SEO bugbears and sacred cows may
matter less to ranking than good content.
* PageRank. The median PageRank was 4. One page had
a PageRank of 0. Of course, this might simply be yet
another demonstration that the little PageRank number
you get in your browser window is not what Google's
algo is using. But if you're one of those people who
attaches an overriding value to that little number,
this is food for thought.
* Frames. The top two web pages listed for the most
searched-on keyword employ frames. Frames may still
be a bad web design idea from a usability standpoint,
and they may ruin your search engine rankings if your
site's linking system depends on them. But there are
worse ways you could shoot yourself in the foot.
Again, that's not the best web design practice, but
there are worse things you could do.
* Links: Most of the web pages contained ten or more
links; many contain over 30, in defiance of the SEO
bugbears about "link popularity bleeding."
Moreover, nearly all the pages contained a significant
number of non-relevant links. On many pages, non-relevant
links outnumbered relevant ones. Of course, it's not
clear what benefit the website owners hope to get from
placing irrelevant links on pages. It has been a proven
way of lowering conversion rates and losing visitors.
But Google doesn't seem to care if your website makes
* Originality: a significant number of pages contained
content copied from other websites. In all cases, the
content was professionally written content apparently
distributed on a free-reprint basis. Note: the reprint
content did not consist of content feeds. However, no
website consisted solely of free-reprint content. There
was always at least a significant portion of original
content, usually the majority of the page.
* Make sure a professional writer, or at least someone
who can tell good writing from bad, is creating your
site's content, particularly in the case of a search-engine
optimization campaign. If you are an SEO, make sure
you get a pro to do the content. A shocking number of
SEOs write incredibly badly. I've even had clients whose
websites got fewer conversions or page views after their
SEOs got through with them, even when they got a sharp
uptick in unique visitors. Most visitors simply hit
the "back" button when confronted with the
unpalatable text, so the increased traffic is just wasted
* If you write your own content, make sure that it
passes through the hands of a skilled copyeditor or
writer before going online.
* Update your content often. It's important both to
add new pages and update existing pages. If you can't
afford original content, use free-reprint content.
* Distribute your content to other websites on a free-reprint
basis. This will help your website get links in exchange
for the right to publish the content. It will also help
spread your message and enhance your visibility. Fears
of a "duplicate content penalty" for free-reprint
content (as opposed to duplication of content within
a single website) are unjustified.
In short, if you have a mature website that is already
indexed and getting traffic, you should consider making
sure the bulk of your investment in your website is
devoted to its content, rather than graphic design,
old-school search-engine optimization, or linking campaigns.
About the author:
[Formatting: for web, please use "website content
provider" as the link's anchor text (visible link
text)] Joel Walsh's archive of web business articles
is at the website of his business, UpMarket Content,
a website content provider: http://UpMarketContent.com